The Bare Walls Theory: How Much Stimulation is Too Much?

By Mara Cortona




Enter the toy aisle at a department store, and closely observe how your body responds. What words and phrases come to mind?

For me, those words are, "manic", "cacophonous", and "soulless".

During the precious early years, children are literally absorbing every stimulus they're presented with and using it to construct their psyche. So how did an entire culture come to allow glaring colors, manufactured plastics, and empty electronic voices to dominate their collective image of what a child's space and materials should be?

Montessori classrooms have always operated on the opposite end of the spectrum. Light neutral colors, natural materials, and sparsely adorned walls are hallmarks of a traditional Montessori children's environment. Like so many of Maria's ideas (see Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius), the research is in:

We know how to do it best.

A 2014 Carnegie Mellon study ( revealed that "children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed."

One of the issues with near-constant sensory stimulation is that an object's threshold for interest is set impossibly high. For a child who's become accustomed to environments and materials that flamboyantly compete for attention, the educator's task is that much more daunting as they seek to interest the child in simple tasks that are intrinsically rewarding. An ability to self-regulate, to create order and beauty where it isn't obvious, and to find joy in work are some of the best predictors of success. When we overstimulate, we are robbing children of the deep satisfaction of this higher level of human function -- of experiencing meaning beyond mere pleasure and satiation.

This principle, central to Montessori, can be summed up as: nourish the child with rich food, and not too much of it.

A young infant in our Nido classroom (Nido: Italian for "nest") is presented with a simple mobile, handmade of natural materials -- perhaps black-and-white, perhaps with gradations of color, depending on the child's carefully observed level of visual development. It hangs at the precise distance the newborn's eyes are known to focus. The mobile sways gently -- just enough to attract interest, but slowly enough that her eyes can track it.

The Montessori guide observes the infant from a distance, careful not to disturb. She uses hushed, gentle voices. If any auditory stimulation is present, it is quiet classical music or sounds of nature. The wall behind the mobile is a subdued, soothing color. The infant has come to trust that when she chooses to focus on something of interest to her, she will not be interrupted

In this way, we offer the very young child, still constructing herself, the tools she will need to learn the arts of stillness, silence, simplicity, and serenity. Unnecessary stimulation is a limit and a constraint upon the imagination -- we offer her freedom.

Making the Most of your Bedtime Ritual: An Evening with Andrew Newman

On Friday, December 22, we were honored to host Mr. Andrew Newman, author of the "Conscious Bedtime Stories" children's book series.

Andrew led us through a thoughtful presentation about the crucial importance of the last 20 minutes of a child's day. His talk was especially poignant for our community of working parents, for whom his quality-over-quantity message most aptly applied. Citing recent neuroscience and developmental psychology, Andrew described how a child's psyche processes the day's events as they sleep. He recommended taking these few minutes before bed to drop everything, breathe, and be fully present. Teach mindfulness. Listen to what they have to say about their days (this is often when kids really open up). Create soothing rituals. Touch them. Connect.

In Andrew's own words: "Conscious storytime -- the last 20 minutes of each day -- helps children integrate their day's lessons and experiences, allows them to let go of negativity, and fall sleep feeling safe and loved. Together at bedtime, taking relaxing breaths and discussing the day over a sweet story, you foster a familial sense of belonging and conscious connection that will support your children through the rest of their lives. That's why we created The Conscious Bedtime Story Club."

Each of his 12 stories (subscribe and have one delivered each month for a year!) features a beautiful story imparting a concept like mindfulness, self-acceptance, silence, and mind-body wholeness. Each story begins with "a snuggle breathing" exercise and ends with an exercise relating to the principle the book centered on -- as well as a special sticker and a star to color in for each time the story is read!

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Little Lyceum Montessori 2017 Book List

As the 2017-2018 school year approaches, we're restocking our classroom libraries at each level. At Little Lyceum, we are big believers in the importance of literature. Exposure to beautifully crafted and carefully selected books inspire children to become voracious readers who turn to books for leisure as well as curiosity. Whether it's a 6-month-old enraptured by watching her teacher's lips move as she reads to her, or a 5-year-old reading aloud to a younger child, we love watching children discover the joy and stimulation good children's books uniquely provide.

As parents, you can support our work at home by reading aloud daily. You can also volunteer to come into your child's classroom and read your favorite books during the work cycle, or donate them to our classroom supply for a more lasting impact. However you choose to support our children's literary exposure, here's a list of our favorite books at each level.


Picture Books for Infants and Toddlers

  • Busy Chickens by John Schindel & Steven Holt -- Beautiful color photographs in this board book will help children learn about chickens – both familiar and fancy – and their behaviors: squawking, perching, leaping, and more.  Lots of feathery fun for the whole family!
  • Carrie and Carl Play by Lois T. Smith -- Carrie and her brother Carl love playing games together and with their parents.  Little ones will have a great time peeking behind the flaps and finding ways to have fun with objects around the house.
  • Carry Me (Babies Everywhere) by Star Bright Books -- Rhyming text and cheery color photographs introduce children to the ways in which babies travel – in baskets, blankets, and in a parent’s arms, while highlighting the parent-child bond across cultures.   Available in multiple languages.
  • I Am a Little Giraffe by Francois Crozat -- You and your child can explore the lives of giraffes in their natural habitat, in this volume from the “I Am a Little Animal” series.  The realistic artwork and endearing first-person text will help your child develop a life-long respect for these magnificent animals.  Worth exploring all the titles in the series!
  • Roadwork by Sally Sutton -- Lovers of construction vehicles will be delighted by this story of the machines and people who work together to build a road. Clever rhyming with onomatopoeic words will have your child asking for this book again and again! (Spanish and English versions available)
  • Grandpa and Me by Karen Katz -- It’s so much fun to make a pizza with grandpa when all the ingredients are hidden behind flaps!  Karen Katz’ adorable illustrations in bright, vibrant colors keep even the youngest children engaged.
  • Sleepy Time by Gyo Fujikawa -- The bedtime routines of children are contrasted with the sleeping habits of animals through lulling text and endearing artwork.  A calming book for winding down after an exciting day.
  • Tubby by Leslie Patricelli -- A young toddler enjoys bath time with the help of mom and dad (who end up soaked!) in this sweet little book with cheerful pictures and simple text.  Be prepared for lots of giggles and repeated readings!
  • How Artists See Horses Jr. (Horses) by Colleen Carroll -- Young children love artwork, especially when introduced as part of a theme.  “Horses” is part of a series that also explores works of art featuring dogs, trains, and babies.  Each book includes a “Parent Guide” with questions that mom and dad can ask to encourage conversation.

Picture Books for Early Preschool

  • The Big Orange Splot by D. Manus Pinkwater -- (Mr. Gordon's favorite book!) When Mr. Plumbeans' house is splashed with bright orange paint, he decides a multi-colored house would be a nice change. This favorite story of creativity and individuality is back by popular demand.
  • Off We Go to Mexico! by Laurie Krebs -- A family of five travels through Mexico, discovering its rich customs.  Barefoot Books offers both Spanish and English versions, with rhythmic text and colorful illustrations. The English version has Spanish/English vocabulary on each page so everyone can learn new words!
  • The Animal in Me: Is Very Plain to See by Laurie Tye -- Full-color photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen and intelligent text help children imagine what animal they most resemble when they feel tired, hungry, sleepy or playful.  A great way for little ones to explore their emotions while they learn about nature.
  • One Monday Morning by Uri Shulevitz -- A little boy is stuck inside on a rainy day, and makes up a whimsical story about being visited by an ever-growing royal court.  The repetitive nature of the text will enchant children, as will the delightful pictures and charming characters.
  • What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page -- This interactive book helps children learn about the many amazing things animals can do with their body parts, including legs, mouths, and of course, tails!  The illustrations in cut-paper collage helped the book earn a Caldecott Honor.
  • Five Trucks by Brian Floca -- Sparse text and beautifully rendered artwork allow much room for conversation in this book about the important work of airport vehicles and their drivers.  Featuring ordinal numbers (first, second, etc.) counted forwards and backwards, unlike most counting books.
  • He's Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson -- A young boy and his interracial family celebrate diversity and community in an inspiring picture book that highlights the interconnectedness of people and nature.  One of America’s most-loved songs, interpreted through a child’s world-view.
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats -- The wonder and possibility of that first snowfall is seen through the eyes of a child in this classic of children’s literature.  It was the first children’s book to feature an African-American child as the lead character, and is delightfully illustrated in collage form.
  • I'll Follow the Moon by Stephanie Lisa Tara -- On a serene, quiet sandy beach a baby sea turtle breaks free from its egg and begins the journey to find its home and its mother.  Simple words, gentle rhythm and calming illustrations make this a wonderful bedtime story.
  • Adele & Simon by Barbara McClintock -- Set in early 20th century Paris, this engaging “I Spy”-style book follows Adele and her forgetful little brother, who loses all his belongings on the way home from school.  Children will pour over the intricate pen-ink-and-watercolor images in search of Simon’s missing gloves, scarf, crayons, and knapsack!
  • The Colors of Us by Karen Katz -- Celebrate the differences and similarities that connect all people, as seen through the eyes of a little girl who begins to view her familiar world in a new way. Seven-year-old Lena and her mother observe the variations in the color of their friends’ skin, viewed in terms of foods and objects found in nature.

Picture Books for Later Preschool

  • The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies -- Young John Audubon came to America alone, expected to help manage his father’s farm. His love, however, was birds. This is the story of a boy scientist and artist who asked questions and persisted at his craft until he discovered the answers to the riddle of where birds spend their winters.
  • Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas by Cheryl Bardoe -- Mendel is the largely unacknowledged founder of modern genetics. This is his story—the story of a poor boy who was curious about how traits get passed on from parents to children, and who became a scientist. A great introduction to science based on careful observation and experimentation, accessible to elementary children.
  • When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest -- A heartwarming story of a Jewish orphan from Poland who gets sent off to the US as a young teen. A great introduction to America’s immigrant history—and to pursuing your values in the face of obstacles.
  • The Brooklyn Bridge by Elizabeth Mann -- A wonderful story of dreams being made reality through persistence over many years. A father, a son, a mother and wife all play a role in this inspiring story, which will also expose budding engineers to the power of this fascinating profession.
  • Thunderbirds by Jim Arnosky -- A wonderful book of inspiring paintings of birds large and small, along with short text that captures the author and scientist’s fascination with these amazing animals. A good introduction to birding and nature observation.
  • Erika-san by Allen Say -- A Japanese-American girl graduates from high school and lives her dream of teaching English in Japan. Beautiful illustrations and a wonderful way of bringing out the fascination of cultural differences make this book special (like all of Allen Say’s works, which are very worth exploring!).
  • Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnel -- This is an incredible but true story of a five-year-old girl who gest shipped as a parcel on a train to visit her grandma. A great introduction to history!
  • Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull -- A sickly, premature African-American child whom nobody even expected to live achieves the impossible. After her leg is deformed by polio, she persistently works at strengthening it, and ultimately wins three Olympic gold medals for the United States. A true, inspiring story of courage and spunk!
  • Dandelions by Eve Bunting -- A sweet, beautifully illustrated story of pioneer life on the prairie—and a sweet gesture with which a young girl brightens her mother’s day.

Chapter Books for Read-Aloud in Older Primary

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster -- Hailed as “a classic. . . . humorous, full of warmth and real invention”, this beloved story--first published more than fifty ago--introduces readers to Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond. 
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- A spoiled orphan must live with her distant uncle in a Scottish castle. The castle harbors many mysteries—a hidden garden, disquieting sounds. When the girl finds out the secret, she gains friendship, and matures out of her spoiled past. A benevolent old-time best-seller.
  • A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith -- A young mouse discovers his musical talent, and with it helps the elderly lady in whose house he lives. This sweet story succeeds at interweaving musical terms—and at exposing children to the world of an elderly person living alone.
  • The BFG by Roald Dahl -- A rollicking, fantastic adventure with lots of language play, sure to be a favorite with kindergarten-age students. Expect a lot of laughing out loud!
  • Little Horse by Betsy Byars -- A great very first chapter book for readers who have mastered all their phonograms and are ready to tackle a chapter-level read. It’s a sweet story of a horse who gets lost, and experiences quite a different world on her journey.
  • Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne -- This is book #1 of the Magic Treehouse series—a great set of early chapter books. In each book, siblings Jack and Annie explore a different place, in a different time. A great way to enjoy reading, build background knowledge and become curious about faraway places and distant times.
  • Lafcadio by Shel Silverstein -- Follow the adventures of Lafcadio, a comical lion who becomes an expert marksman but loses his true identity in the process.  Shel Silverstein’s mastery of language and witty style (get ready for puns!), humorously introduce life lessons while stretching imaginations.  Best as a read-aloud book!
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden -- Chester Cricket arrives in Times Square and meets Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat.  Together, they embark on many adventures and make friends with a boy, who gives Chester a new life.  As suspenseful as it is heartwarming, this book will enthrall both children and adults!
  • Masterpiece by Elise Broach -- Eleven-year old James and his buddy, an artistic roach named Marvin, get caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This dynamic mystery will have readers cheering for both boy and beetle!  Black & white pencil drawings add to this novel’s charm.
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren -- Pippi is an irrepressible, irreverent, and thoroughly delightful girl who lives alone (with a monkey) in her wacky house, Villa Villekulla.  Pippi’s high-spirited, good-natured hijinks cause as much trouble as fun, while her generosity has made her a hero to children for generations.
  • A Pizza the Size of the Sun by Jack Prelutzky -- Discover a poem that’s read backwards, a never-ending poem, and a collection of funny characters who don’t take themselves too seriously.  A humorous and creative collection of poetry that appeals to children’s love of all things outlandish.